Winners Announced for UB's 'Rise to the Challenge' Business Pitch Competition
Brian Furr
Brian Furr

Four winners, including undergraduates and alumni, emerged from the "Rise to the Challenge" Business Pitch Competition on June 10, each receiving their own virtual version of "the big check" and a portion of the more than $23,000 in prize money. The event, conducted entirely online for the first time, is supported annually by the University of Baltimore's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to showcase many of the UB community's most talented and driven entrepreneurs.


Brian Furr, a Ratcliffe Entrepreneurship Fellow, a junior and founder of Mindful Designs, which manufactures "My Furr's Guitar" to aid early childhood development by teaching music through a simple, color-coded system, came up a two-time winner. Furr earned the top vote in the category of "Existing Business Ventures," a $5,000 prize, and he was chosen as the evening's "Most Promising Business," walking away with a $15,000 "check." The award, established in 2018 through the Jay Ripley Entrepreneurship Fund, is given to the student whose business, in either category, has the best prospects for growth, as determined by the judges.


Torianne Montes-Schiff, a Ratcliffe Entrepreneurship Fellow and a junior, earned the top award in the category of "Aspiring Business Ventures," netting $2,000 for her business idea, Almano, a subscription box service featuring handmade goods from local artisans, including jewelry, art prints, natural health/beauty care products, and seasonal herbs.


Kevin McHugh, B.S. '19, founder of Bloom Box, an agricultural subscription box business catering to the needs of urbanites, especially those living in elder care facilities, took home the Crowd Favorite award of $1,000. Another UB alumnus, James Soldinger, M.S. '17, won the first Baltimore Fund Award for Flave, a mobile app that uses gamification and personalized content to encourage consumers to eat at local dining establishments.


New this year, and sponsored by the University System of Maryland, the $500 award is given to the entrepreneur who best exemplifies the University's commitment to Community and Civic Engagement, Ethical Engagement, and Responsible and Resourceful Stewardship for the City of Baltimore. Soldinger also earned the $500 "Hustle Award," presented by Jason Tagler, founder of Pitch Creator. The cash prize—normally rolls of $20 bills in a glass jar but this year delivered via PayPal—goes to the finalist who shows the most improvement during the multi-week presentation coaching program.


As an added highlight this year, Shelby Blondell, B.S. '15, MBA '18, a double alumna of UB's entrepreneurship program and a rising star as both an entertainer and inventor, provided the "half-time" show while the judges met to deliberate and choose the winners. In addition to being a songwriter-singer, as she calls herself, and a musician with several chart-topping songs to her credit, she’s also a successful, prize-winning, serial entrepreneur and the inventor of The Sheller, a 3-in-1 crab mallet, knife and bottle opener. Blondell performed several songs and then engaged in a Q&A session with Murray Dalziel, dean of the Merrick School of Business, about the intersection of creativity and commerce. The combo helped make the entire night a memorable celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit.


Other finalists in the competition, now in its eighth year, included:

  • Nicole Mighty, founder of Spiked Orchids, an upcycling fashion brand that supports the local market and seeks to help solve sustainability issues through the reuse of materials.
  • Juliana Stube, whose company JES Made provides one-of-a-kind luxury fashionable, functional, and sustainable pet accessories.
  • Adrian Nelson, B.S. '16, whose company Nail Quail, makers of Strong Will, a natural product to help people with a nail-biting habit stop and regain confidence, comfort, and nail health.

For the very first time, the finalist cohort, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students as well as alumni, pitching in two separate categories, Aspiring Business and Existing Business, all competed from remote locations, due to restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel of expert judges, who also participated remotely, represented the local business and entrepreneurship community, as well as the UB ecosystem:

  • Carlene Cassidy, CEO, Philip E. & Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation
  • Tracy Imm, MBA '92, founder, Tracy Imm Worldwide
  • Brian Meritt, partner, RSM US

"Although not everyone walked away with a monetary prize, I believe that all of the finalists proved to be winners this year," said Henry Mortimer, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. "Honestly, the work that they put into this competition, amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic, a volatile economy, and national and local unrest—not to mention adapting their lives from an in-person to a virtual setting, literally overnight—is nothing short of extraordinary. They're all impressive, and it is my hope that I'm not the only one who feels that way—that each caught the attention of someone new who’d be interested in their idea or product, possibly some very influential people who can help nurture the growth of their enterprise and allow them to continue to develop as entrepreneurs.”


If you were unable to view the competition, you can watch the competition on the Merrick School's YouTube channel.


The "Rise to the Challenge" competition, sponsored by UB's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is designed to generate awareness of emerging and established innovative business ventures nurtured by the UB community. Learn more about the "Rise to the Challenge" business competition.

Learn more about the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

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